Dutch proverbs, as painted by Pieter Bruegel

Dutch proverbs, as painted by Pieter Bruegel

How well do you know your Dutch proverbs? The great Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder obviously knew quite a few when he painted his beautiful work of art: Nederlandse Spreekwoorden or Netherlandish Proverbs.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Dutch painter and printmaker, born in Breda around 1530. He is widely considered the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting and was the head of the well-known and highly regarded Brueghel family. Bruegel is considered to have influenced the paintings in the Dutch Golden Age, however his main trade was as a print designer for Hieronymus Cock, the most important print publisher in Northern Europe.

Bruegel’s paintings have been dated back to 1557, and by 1563, he had shifted his main medium from print designing to painting. His paintings were coveted by wealthy Flemish collectors and he counted Cardinal Granvelle, a top minister in the House of Austria, as one of his patrons. Some of his most famous paintings include Fall of the Rebel Angels, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, The Tower of Babel, Netherlandish Proverbs and Magpie on the Gallows. These paintings can be found in various museums around the world.

Netherlandish Proverbs

The painting below is Pieter Bruegel’s “Netherlandish Proverbs”. It was originally called “The Blue Cloak” due to a scene in the centre of the painting where a woman puts a blue cloak over a man’s head. As blue often represented deceit or cheating, the scene represents the woman cuckolding the man. This scene became synonymous with paintings and prints featuring Flemish proverbs.

The painting depicting Dutch proverbs

In this picture, which is currently in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, Bruegel has depicted some famous Dutch proverbs. A lot of these proverbs are similar to their English counterparts and mean the same thing, while some have fallen out of use. There are over 120 proverbs incorporated into the painting. How many can you find? We have shared a few of our favourites below.


Met het hoofd tegen de muur lopen 

In this excerpt, we can see a man seemingly running into a wall wearing only one shoe. Here Bruegel is depicting the age-old adage, to bang one's head against a wall, which we all know means trying to accomplish something that is hopeless.

Aan de ene voet een schoen, de ander blootvoets

Did you notice he is only wearing one shoe? This is a reference to the saying, one foot shod, the other bare. This basically means balance is everything.


Hij laat wereld op zijn duim draaien

Here we see a man seemingly levitating the globe in his hand. Actually, if you look closely, the man has the world spinning on his thumb. This could either be taken as, having every advantage or having the world in the palm of your hand. The latter seems more plausible, especially as the man is depicted with his palm upwards. What do you think? 


Voor God een baard van vlas maken

Here we can see a depiction of Christ with a priest stroking his white beard, at least that's what it looks like. What this scene depicts is the priest tying a flaxen beard to the face of Christ. Essentially, this means to use religion (in this case Christianity) to cover deceit.

We can find a similar sentiment in the story of the man and the wooden god by Aesop. In this story, a man worships a wooden idol and when the man's life fails to change, he strikes the idol, which breaks and spills coins onto the floor. 


Uit hetzelfde gat schijten 

If this picture looks like two guys going for a number two out of a window together to you, that's because that's exactly what it is. The saying they both crap through the same hole is meant to represent two people being inseparable. I guess that's just what best friends did in the 16th century. 


Op de wereld schijten 

As soon as you look at this picture, you see exactly what Bruegel was trying to portray here. This man is shitting on the world, an action that represents hatred towards everything.

De omgekeerde wereld

Did you notice that the world is turned upside down? If you have a look at the other pictures, all the globes have the cross facing upwards. This means that things are in disarray and disordered, kind of like this painting. 


De een scheert schapen, de ander varkens 

Here we have two guys. One of them shears a sheep while the other shears a pig. Essentially, this is meant to represent one person having all the advantages, while the other has none. It may also represent the advice, "shear them, don't skin them," meaning make the most of what you have.


Zij hangt haar man de blauwe huik om 

Look at this lovely lady, here she is helping put a blue cloak on her husband. What a great wife, right? Wrong. Blue was the colour that represented trickery and deceit and so this saying is taken to mean that the wife is cheating on the husband. 

The saying "to pull the wool over his eyes," springs to mind.


Bij de duivel te biecht gaan

Here we can see a man on his knees talking to a...tree man? At least, that's what it looks like at first glance. Really, this is supposed to show someone confessing to the devil, which can be taken to mean he is revealing secrets to the enemy.


Op hete kolen zitten

This man has been painted sitting on hot coals. This saying is still widely in use today and means that someone is impatient. 


Ergens de gek mee scheren 

You would be forgiven if you had no idea what is going on here. It looks like someone is trying to force-feed a guy in a onesie with a trowel. Actually, the guy is shaving a fool without lather, a saying that is taken to mean, to trick someone. 

Twee zotten onder één kaproen ​​​​​​

Did you notice those two fools under one hood in the back? Stupidity loves company! 

How many can you spot?

As you can probably tell, Dutch proverbs are very similar to their English counterparts both in saying and meaning. There are over 120 proverbs depicted in this painting, with figures acting out multiple proverbs with their actions. That is the beauty of this painting, each figure could represent multiple proverbs through a single action. Have fun trying to identify all the proverbs and if you think that the pictures above depict a different proverb than the one we have given for it, let us know in the comments! 

William Nehra


William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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